Gay Men's Leisure Lifestyles

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The importance of leisure to the development of gay male identities and networks throughout the past century cannot be overstated. Men have come together in parks, bars, bathhouses, and bookstores to have sex, make friends, and build communities. Leisure, manhood, and homosexuality have coalesced through intersections with capitalism, urbanization, technology, and law.

Capitalism: Production, Reproduction, and "Excessive" Recreation

In "Capitalism and Gay Identity," John D'Emilio observes that the rise of wage labor and commodity production made possible the emergence of modern homosexual identity. Wage labor disassociated an individual's income from its dependency on the family. The growth of commodity-based economies shifted production from households to the market, and consumption from families to individuals. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, men found new opportunities for expressions of homosexuality, and gender transgression as production and reproduction became less strictly intertwined.

On the other hand, American capitalism largely developed within a moral system of male-centered, family-oriented property ownership. The need for financial security that familial dependency places on the bread-winner(s) assists capitalism by ensuring a degree of workforce stability. D'Emilio suggests this contradiction of capitalism—both destabilizing the family and insisting on its centrality—fuels hostility toward gay men, who appear to live on the spoils of production without embracing the societal duties of marriage and reproduction. Moreover, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, medical-juridical professions and popular culture came to view male homosexuality and gender inversion, in part, as excesses of leisure and metropolitan modernity.

Modern male homosexuality as it developed throughout the first half of the twentieth century might be understood as a disruption of the supposedly natural binding of production to reproduction. Instead of the duties of procreation, gay men seemed to be chiefly concerned with what American capitalism relegated to recreation

Urbanization: Commercialized Leisure, Public Space, and Private Parties

Through urbanization, the recreational sites of the city became the terrain of what George Chauncey calls the "gay world." In the first half of the twentieth century, this world was largely one of leisure, accessed through commercialized, public, and private spaces.

The development of commercialized urban leisure shaped gay male culture in venues devoted to entertainment, health, and socializing. Entertainment spaces, such as vaudeville theaters, burlesque halls, and cabarets provided female impersonators with performance venues that, in turn, attracted audiences of gay men. Huge drag balls were the biggest gay events in the early twentieth century, attracting hundreds of participants and onlookers. The back rows of darkened movie houses provided cover for anonymous sex between men. Moreover, the movies themselves, like opera, theater, and dance, were a source of archetypal models for shared queer camp sensibilities of gender subversion and irony.

The health movement, intending to uplift men by building muscular and moral fiber, provided other sites. The Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) provided an ideal space for men to gather for sex and socializing. As John Gustav-Wrathall explains, these male-only spaces had little supervision and, because of their Christian mission, were mostly free from police surveillance. Bath-houses also provided health-oriented commercial spaces for male sex and camaraderie. Particularly as the popularity of bathhouses decreased among the general population in the 1930s and 1940s, owners cultivated gay clientele. Regular visits helped gay men build social networks they may not have been free to embrace outside the baths.

Commercialized leisure venues geared mostly toward socializing—namely, bars and cafeterias—gained prominence in the gay world by the second third of the twentieth century. Before World War II, gay bars existed in large cities. War migration of young, single men to cities brought many into gay subcultures. Gay bars opened in midsize towns such as Denver, Cleveland, and Kansas City. By the mid-1960s, many cities began to have gay bars that appealed to specific crowds, from the well-groomed and understated sweater set to the rougher, more masculine, motorcycle club-inspired leather men, to the commercialized sex trade of hustlers and johns. In some cafeterias, particularly after the dinner crowd had gone home, managers tolerated flamboyant behavior among the young and low-income gay men who found such establishments the cheapest, friendliest place to socialize.

Public spaces also allowed men the freedom to explore same-sex erotic opportunities as a component of their leisure. As Chauncey describes, streets, parks, and public toilets in New York City in the early twentieth century were locations for both furtive encounters and a self-conscious gay subculture. Public spaces gave men living with families or in cramped quarters a place to meet openly. Such public space and cruising culture became a means through which many men who came for the sex ended up socialized into the gay world.

Once in that world, men enjoyed private parties held at houses and apartments. In Harlem throughout the 1920s, for example, African American men and women hosted rent parties where same-sex coupling and socializing occurred alongside heterosexual affairs. In well-to-do white enclaves, parties might be subdued affairs or decadent bacchanalias. Private parties sustained gay men through good times and bad and, to some extent, sheltered them from the surveillance and regulation in more visible leisure venues.

Technology: Mechanics of Mobility, Circuits of Community

In urban and nonurban environments, technological innovations served gay male leisure. Mass production of the automobile facilitated both the migration of men into existing urban gay subcultures (as either tourists or transplants) and queer circulation throughout rural and suburban regions. Both the car and the roadside rest stop were, by the mid-twentieth century, well-established sites for gay male connections. As printing technologies became more accessible and inexpensive from the 1940s onward, newsletters, fliers, bar guides, maps, and physique magazines became increasingly commonplace means of publicizing gay leisure in a more structured circuit of activities and locations. Sound recording brought artists popular with gay men to gay bar jukeboxes and lip-synching drag queens. Recordings by queer performers such as female impersonator Ray Bourbon inspired listening parties and a shared sense of camp among men in towns of all sizes. Much later, the Internet would revolutionize the ways that gay men could connect both locally and globally.

Law: Policing and Contested Leisure

Although relegated to "leisure" in the American capitalist system, gay men in the midcentury were, as William Eskridge notes, "smothered by law" in everything from employment to family to recreation. Sodomy laws, disorderly conduct and solicitation regulations, policies that revoked the liquor licenses of bars serving homosexuals or allowing cross-dressing, and police surveillance and brutality were only the most formal mechanisms to prevent gay men from having fun together. The development of collective gay identity and community has always been built through "contested leisure," in which men struggled for free association and pursuits of pleasure within social, legal, political, and economic constraints that sought to contain or eradicate such men and their leisure.

Contested leisure suggests two interrelated meanings. First, because the leisure lifestyles and locations of gay men are contested by society, they require constant nurturing and risk taking in order to flourish. Second, such leisure contests the meaning of leisure itself in a way that reworks the categories of work and family. Especially in the second half of the twentieth century, as gay men increasingly owned and worked in sites of gay leisure, work and leisure distinctions became fuzzy. Moreover, gay men created alternative families through networks of friends. In so doing they subverted the singular definition of "normal" family, asserting that leisure created family, rather than being somehow apart from it.

In addition, gay men, along with transgender people and lesbians, used their sites of contested leisure to demand greater access to supposedly universal rights of assembly and the pursuit of happiness. In Reilly v. Stouman (1951), the California Supreme Court ruled San Francisco's Black Cat Café could not lose its liquor license just for having a homosexual customer base. At the same bar, drag performer José Sarria performed satirical operettas criticizing police abuses to mostly gay audiences. At the end of the show, he had the audience join hands and sing "God Save Us Nelly Queens." On 28 June 1969, patrons of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, fought back against the latest round of police harassment, helping to spark Gay Liberation.

The Gay Liberation Leisure Boom

Since the 1960s, gay leisure has exploded as relative freedom of association and expression has coupled with commercialization and social organizing. As Martin Levine suggests, as gay people dramatically reduced criminal, psychiatric, and social antihomosexual stigma, they removed barriers to the gay worlds' growth, particularly in cities. As police harassment of bars decreased, for example, such bars proliferated. Since the 1970s, gay bar patrons have danced, expressed physical intimacy, and used drugs with little fear of public scandal or arrest. In growing gay neighborhoods, gay-owned retail venues emerged, selling everything from cookies to sex toys. Gay bookstores became cultural gathering spots. In the 1970s and 1980s, gay theater sprang up, as did other cultural events and organizations, such as film festivals, choruses, and marching bands. Health-related gay male leisure expanded to include athletic teams, leagues, and gyms. Gay travel agents arranged gay-themed domestic and international vacation packages.

Spending leisure time and discretionary income in these venues could feel like an act of self-affirmation and solidarity. Coming out, socializing, and participating in recreational sex took on the symbolic weight of personal liberation, community building, and social transformation. In addition, gay men, along with lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered people, began to occupy public space in more spectacular ways. Most notable have been the pride parades and festivals that began the year after Stonewall. While these more visible modes of publicity transformed earlier models of gay leisure and public space, they did not supplant it. Men, some identified as gay, others not, still cruised streets, parks, and public rest rooms for sex.

The onset of AIDS in the early 1980s profoundly changed the "spare time" activities of many gay men. Caretaking, health maintenance, spiritual exploration, political activism, and grieving took precedence for many. Still, older institutions survived, including bars and cultural events. Even public sex and bathhouses persisted, although in more modest forms as both government and gay people grappled with ways to cultivate a culture of "safe sex." In some places, such as San Francisco, local officials closed the baths amid heated debates within the gay community as to whether such measures deterred unsafe sex or just encouraged it to take place in unregulated settings.

Contemporary Gay Rights and Recreation

Leisure continues to define gay male identity and community. Yet "being gay" has, ironically, become less about leisure than about securing access to more traditional realms of political representation, economic equity, social services, and family law. As more gay men conceptualize their families as approximations of the traditional model of married parents and possibly children; define their homosexuality as an issue of civil rights; or occupy, as openly gay men, nongay-specific commercialized, public, and private leisure sites, the distinction between gay leisure and mainstream leisure becomes more difficult to discern. Blurring lines even further has been the corporate discovery of the "gay market," in which gay men have become a target demographic for the same leisure-related services and products consumed by everyone else.

This process is far from complete. Antigay military policies, violence against gays, compartmentalization within corporate-produced popular culture, and exclusions from such basic institutions as marriage and adoption continue to make gay men's leisure contested. Moreover, sites and participants of gay male leisure that do not conform with the processes of civil integration find themselves increasingly marginalized in public discourse. Public sex is now policed and pathologized from both traditional institutional forces and prominent segments of the gay community. Gay relationships and definitions of family that do not fit into the civic and workplace discourses of "domestic partnership" and "family leave" find their appeals for time off from work to spend leisure time with chosen families of gay friends taken less seriously than the requests from gay men in couples and with children.

Despite being more widespread than ever, leisure holds a diminished place within gay identity and community in comparison to the gay world prior to a rights discourse. Still, it is a critical means through which gay men experience collective joy, passion, camaraderie, and belonging. Gay leisure has been and will hopefully always be a site of contestation, a means of both fitting into and disrupting the hegemony of American heterosexual capitalism.

See also: Lesbian Leisure Lifestyles; Men's Leisure Lifestyles


Altman, Dennis. The Homosexualization of America: The Americanization of the Homosexual. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982.

Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940. New York: Basic Books, 1994.

Clarke, Eric O. Virtuous Vice: Homoeroticism and the Public Sphere. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000.

D'Emilio, John. "Capitalism and Gay Identity." In Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality. Edited by Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983.

Eskridge, William N. Gaylaw: Challenging the Apartheid of the Closet. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Gustav-Wrathall, John. Take the Young Stranger by the Hand: Same-Sex Relations and the YMCA. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Hennessey, Rosemary. Profit and Pleasure: Sexual Identities in Late Capitalism. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Levine, Martin P. "The Life and Death of Gay Clones." In Gay Culture in America: Essays from the Field. Edited by Gilbert Herdt. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.

Somerville, Siobhan B. Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in America. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000.

Don Romesburg